Rainer – The Farm

The Farm

Without a doubt, the process of releasing records posthumously is a thorny issue. Sometimes putting out unreleased recordings after an artist’s untimely death can be a comforting act of closure to relatives and fans alike, but at the same time it can also be done for less than altruistic reasons. More often than not, it can be an act of exploitation to capitalise on the unceasing commercial appetite for a bottomless musical legacy (as with John Lennon, Freddie Mercury, Kurt Cobain, and countless others). Furthermore, it can lead to unreleased material being made available against the artist’s original living wishes (as with Jeff Buckley’s Sketches (For My Sweetheart the Drunk) – a collection of recordings he scrapped in dissatisfaction just before his premature death). In short, it’s hard to maintain the right balance of critical and compassionate faculties in the event of tragic circumstances, especially where there is money to be made.
Thankfully, no qualms are stirred over the release of The Farm, the final album by the late great Rainer Ptacek, the Tucson, Az. folk-bluesman (and occasional Giant Sand guitarist) who died tragically in 1997 after losing a long hard-fought battle against cancer. Everything feels so right about The Farm that it simply had to be released. Its spontaneity, craftsmanship, warmth, and loving compassion emphasises the fortitude and creative fire of an extremely gifted man who was cruelly struck down his prime.
Joined in the studio by long-time friends and collaborators, Howe Gelb (Giant Sand) on keyboards, Ralph Gilmore (drums), and Nick Augustine (bass), Rainer’s concluding statement is possessed with an almost supernatural freshness and vitality. That feeling is no doubt reinforced by the fact that chemotherapy had caused Rainer some memory loss, meaning that many of his latter days were spent relearning how to play and compose old and new songs respectively. Writing and recording again in the final weeks up to his death was evidently an emotionally healing diversion, and from it comes Rainer’s most sublime body of work. As he was laying down these final recordings, Rainer knew he was going to die, but instead of excavating his deepest regrets, fears, frustrations, and sadness, he conceived The Farm as a beautifully redemptive and near-celebratory farewell to this rude world.
Not without a dry sense of humour, Rainer opens The Farm with the remarkably raucous acoustic-blues rattle of “Junkpile” – a satirical swipe at his dubious next-door neighbours who let their dump of a slum home over-spill into his backyard. Herein follows a rich melange of styles, songs and instrumentals that capture Rainer at the apex of his abilities. The lushly arranged “Where We Are,” for example, shows the languid side of Rainer’s work, with his trademark National Steel guitar weaving in-between his small ensemble’s slow-jazz rhythms and balmy keyboard washes. Elsewhere, the solo-played “Hard To Remember” represents the rawer side of Rainer’s work, capturing his virtuoso acoustic guitar-shapes and gutsy vocals in full undiluted flow.
Approximately half of the record is given over to Rainer’s expressive instrumental explorations, just his 10 fingers and six strings improvising live to tape in the studio. These manifest themselves as either cracked porch stompers or as strung-out meditations, marking Rainer out as an equal to the legendary John Fahey. So whereas the scorching “Arabing” hits a near-atonal groove, the eerie exquisite strains of “Instrumental #10 (Chore Ending)” conjures the moving image of Rainer gazing longingly at the Arizona desert sunsets he would be seeing for the last few times.
But it’s the simple combination of Rainer’s wise courageous words and his wonderfully earthy emotive voice (somewhere between Hank Williams and Bob Dylan) that cements the classic status of The Farm. Three very special songs in particular highlight Rainer’s tight grip on genius – a trio of songs that allude to his illness and his close-nit family in personal terms but that still possess a universal emotional reach.
The first of the triumvirate is the opulent “Oasis,” a gorgeous bathing reflective number, with lilting band accompaniment, that finds Rainer comfortingly intoning “We can all return / Anytime we please / To the oasis / To the oasis / To the oasis of our dreams.” The incredibly evocative “Love is What,” with subtle piano support from Howe Gelb, is an unforgettable statement of romantic devotion in the face of harrowing times; “I want you to count the times you are sublime / Loving yourself is not a crime.” However, of the three diamond cuts, it’s the title-track that provides the highest watermark of the album, perhaps even of Rainer’s entire recorded output. Written during a brief period of remission from the first wave of his illness, “The Farm” is an impossibly poignant song that finds Rainer recalling his difficult early life as a refugee from Communist East Germany, as well as celebrating the birth of his daughter Lily. In respect of his early hard times Rainer yearningly wonders, “How did we ever survive with so much missing?” Rainer’s heart-melting adoration of his young child, reaches into a realm of beauty few songwriters are capable of ever reaching when he sings, “O Lily I love you / Don’t know how I ever / Ever got by without you / Never gonna leave here / Never gonna change that / No matter how many come to lay me flat.” Spine-tingling stuff.
The clumsily collected words of a wannabe music hack simply cannot do justice to the impossible wonder, humility, and humanity of this record. Despite and in spite of its painful conception The Farm is quite possibly Rainer Ptacek’s finest hour, and it’s a truly brilliant record in its own right. A long gracious goodbye. An honourable act of closure. A transcendental triumph. An absolute must.